Standing on the Shoulders of Free Culture

This is a crosspost of an article that I wrote for Commons Machinery:

In her earlier post, Antje Käske mentioned that „intellectual creations are never the sole creation of one individual.“ I would go even further, stating that you can not claim ownership on intellectual goods at all. Why is that? The answer lies in the origin of an idea. If I was inspired by someone else, how do I determine which part of the idea is mine?

This makes more sense with an example. Let’s choose a simple one: I am hungry. My friend comes in, eating some fries. They smell delicious and I decide to get some for me too. So whose idea was it to get some fries? Since my friend had the idea (for herself) first, it seems obvious that it was her idea. On the other hand, I have been hungry a long time and fries did enter my mind as a possible solution. Also she did not think of bringing some fries for me otherwise she might have called to find out if I wanted some. The idea to get fries for me was clearly mine. But it was very much inspired by her. And she could easily say „Hey! You got fries for yourself. You copied me.“ That is partially true! Under these circumstances, it is not possible to define who owns which part of the idea to get me some fries.

And now let’s take this conclusion back to the cultural world: a world where ideas spread and develop through the collaboration of thousands of creative producers who (most of the time subconsciously) take old ideas and make them into completely new things. It is even harder here to decide which part of an idea was mine and which part was built by somebody else. Culture only exists because people copied one another and transformed the ideas during the process.

Kirby Ferguson made an excellent four-part series of video clips claiming that „Everything is a remix„. He explains the basic elements of creativity — „copy – transform – combine“ — and emphasizes the interdependence of creativity. Not unlike the way evolution shaped our genes, he sees social evolution shaping our ideas: memes. Ideas are interwoven and every new creation could not come into existence without the influence of an older one.

The common good is a meme that was overwhelmed by intellectual property. It needs to spread again. If the meme prospers, our laws, our norms, our society: they all transform. That’s social evolution.

Isaac Newton brought this entanglement into a metaphor: nanos gigantum humeris insidentes. We are standing on the shoulders of giants. He meant that you can see much more if you base your thoughts on the findings of others before you. To his mind, his intellect can get a better perspective by building on the work of previous creators, and taking older ideas and insights into account.

This image was not Newton’s invention. It already existed several hundred years before him and can be traced back to the year 1159, when John of Salisbury wrote it down and attributed it to Bernard of Chartres:

Bernard of Chartres used to compare us to [puny] dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.

Each of those men (Newton, Salisbury and Chartres) had his part of bringing this picture to life and keeping it going. Without a doubt, those men also had women supporting them without receiving any credit for their work either. If even this simple image cannot be said to „belong“ to one person, but rather, be the product of many contributors…how could it be any easier with the rest of our ideas?


The image of „dwarves on the shoulders of giants“ belongs to all of us. It belongs to the community that made it possible for people to come up with ideas like that. It belongs to all of those who contribute to the public domain.

Some ideas are just meant to happen, and we know about several cases in history where a very similar invention was made at roughly the same time on different parts of the earth. If an idea is ripe, it comes up. But this happens from the joining of ideas, not from dividing them and „protecting“ them against reuse. As soon as I start to separate „my idea“ from the ideas of others, it has no chance to become part of the giant, who can carry new dwarves. Intellectual property (literally and metaphorically) kills vision.

This is what Henry Ford meant when he said:

I invented nothing new. I simply assembled the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work. […] Progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready, and then it is inevitable. To teach that a comparatively few men are responsible for the greatest forward steps of mankind is the worst sort of nonsense.

It is the nature of an idea to want to share it. But as soon as I tell somebody else about it, that other person may start a whole new process of ideas that I can’t do anything about. I have no right to forbid someone to think about and build on an idea I have just shared with them. As soon as I tell anybody about my idea, I give up control over it and lose any claim of property. As a society, we should encourage people to share their ideas. We can do this by agreeing to attribute the originators of ideas (assuming we can find them) and giving them some amount of time in which they have privileged use of the idea. But we can not call this ownership.

Of course we can say that someone had an idea. And of course the creator has a „special bond“ to his/her work. Even if J.K. Rowling used a lot of old pictures in her fantasy books, no one would deny that she is the author of „Harry Potter“ and has a different link to the books than any other person. If you invest the time to write a whole book, of course you want to get credit for it and also be able to earn some money. It is your time invested and you deserve something in return. You have the right to be acknowledged for you creation. You have the right to be attributed…and so do all the people that had the ideas that you used to develop your idea.

I can only develop an idea because I have an infinite pool of publicly-available insights to use and learn from. Therefore most of the final product of my idea also belongs to the public. This does not conflict with the importance of attribution. The more we attribute, the more we acknowledge the „special bond“ between an artist and his creation, which certainly exists. This actually takes away the power of memes like „intellectual property“. Because we do not need to fight creatives, who feel like their special bond to their work should be appreciated and mistake this with a right to „intellectual property“.

Commons Machinery plans to make the giants visible. With the attribution chain we propose, people can finally appreciate all the hard work that others have done before them. It is the technical realization of the idea that we are all just a bunch of dwarves, standing on the shoulders of huge giants.

I want a platform that shows me all the connections of ideas to older ideas, a platform that brings creations into their (historic) context. I would like to see a place that overwhelms me with connected information and teaches us to be more modest about our own achievements while appreciating the work of others.

Long live the public domain.